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The Essentials: 5 Elia Kazan Films You May Not Know

The Essentials: 5 Elia Kazan Films You May Not Know

Elia Kazan famously once said, “The writer, when he is also an artist, is someone who admits what others don’t dare reveal.” And one could easily argue Kazan’s raison d’être was to go to emotional and psychological places few men dared to tread. While Kazan’s films were often marked by social issues to the outsider, the filmmaker was much more drawn to the pathos of the human condition, the painfully vulnerable, complicated and emotional naked places of the human psyche. And he loved and nurtured the vanity-free actors who were willing and able to facilitate such ends and emotional complex truths. Marlon Brando, the ne plus ultra of tough but overly sensitive and vulnerable American male, was Kazan’s muse, and the filmmaker loved how he could arouse, cajole and release extraordinary feelings in the actor.

“He was an arch-manipulator of actors’ [emotions],” Brando once said of Gadg (Kazan’s nickname), ”And he was extraordinarily talented; perhaps we will never see his like again.” Through the Actors Studio and the Method he and Lee Strasberg championed, Kazan would dig deep in some fragile and fraught muck, using whatever means necessary to get a good and truthful performance, and by doing so took cinema into some exciting and even scary territories. He was a conductor and conduit for the performer, or as Robert De Niro once said, a “master of a new kind of psychological and behavioral faith in acting.”

The emotional fabric and texture in the films of Elia Kazan was always intense, raw, painfully naked, unsettling, ugly, and almost always tragic. Failure, shame, regret, disgrace, indignity (often within the family setting; those who know your deepest darkest secrets and fears) and self-aware tortured souls were his stock and trade. Whether it was the anguished cries of Marlon Brando unabashedly sobbing, “Stella!” in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” James Dean’s bad son Caleb desperately trying to attain the love of his disapproving father to no avail in “East of Eden,” or Brando again in the brutally honest “On The Waterfront” scene of emerging morality as the younger brother, Terry Malloy, confronts his elder brother about being forced to sell himself out all his life in the name of a dishonorable buck. These painful human intersections were where Kazan was most masterful.

Unquestionably one of the great American directors of the 20th century, Kazan has many unassailable classics to his name, including “East Of Eden,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “A Face In The Crowd,” the slightly less-watched but well-regarded “Gentleman’s Agreement” (eight Oscar nominations including a Best Picture win), and “On The Waterfront,” which receives a beautiful Criterion Collection upgrade this week on DVD/Blu-ray (which we discussed yesterday).

Kazan was nominated for Best Director five times and won twice for “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “On The Waterfront.” All in all he was nominated seven times by the Academy, and in 1999 was bestowed an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award by the institution. Collectively, his 16 feature-length films were nominated 55 times, winning 20 times in total (including Best Picture wins for the same two movies he won the directing prize for). A self-avowed outsider, and son of Greek immigrants, Kazan was respected and revered, and yet saw his legacy forever tarnished because of his House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) testimonies (no piece on Kazan is complete without at least some mention of the HUAC). But the art is ultimately what matters.

Clearly you’re familiar with his well-known classic films (or should be), and so reading about them is perhaps not overly revelatory. Kazan’s canon possesses a great and expansive body of work that encompasses four decades of cinema. With “On The Waterfront” hitting DVD/Blu-ray this week, we thought we’d use the occasion to dig a little deeper into the Kazan oeuvre with five, slightly lesser-known films you may not have seen.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” (1945)
Based on Betty Smith’s novel, Kazan’s debut feature-length film is a heartbreaking yet beautiful coming-of-age tale chronicling a bright and precocious young girl who strives for a better life despite her family’s poverty, caused in part by her father’s alcoholism. Set in non-hipstery Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 20th century, the drama focuses on the Irish-American Nolan family and their difficult tenement existence; the hardworking housewife (Dorothy McGuire), the drunken father unable to care for his family (James Dunn, who won an Oscar for his supporting performance), the free-spirited Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) and of course, 13-year-old Francie (Peggy Ann Garner). Garner is a wonderful revelation as the clear-eyed pragmatist who still tries to believe in her father, but is invariably disappointed. Deeply moving, heartfelt and wistful, Kazan was dissatisfied with the film, due in part to its Hollywood sets, which he felt robbed the picture of an authenticity he was seeking. But the sensitive innocence lost (and optimistically regained) tale is classic Hollywood, and definitely worth tracking down. [B+]

Baby Doll” (1956)
One of Kazan’s most controversial movies and one of his most compulsively watchable, this slice of Southern-fried intrigue (written, at least in part, by Tennessee Williams, and based on his one-act play), filmed in silky black and white, features Carroll Baker as the titular Baby Doll, a 19-year-old virgin bride who, at the stroke of her 20th birthday, has to give it up to her slovenly husband Archie (Karl Malden). Archie’s plantation, Fox Tails, is in dire straits, and in a shocking sequence early in the movie he sneaks away in the middle of the night and burns down the cotton gin of a successful local competitor named Vacarro (played by a spry Eli Wallach). Unable to convince local authorities to investigate Archie, he instead visits the plantation and starts to squeeze Baby Doll for information, with his advances eventually becoming more sexual in nature. “Baby Doll” is startlingly frank in its depiction of sexuality (or lack thereof – a whole sequence which borders on sexual assault is never actually seen by the camera), with the iconic image of Baker lounging in a crib, in a tiny nightgown (a style that would later be known as the “baby doll”), her thumb shoved in her mouth, just as evocative of youth and sexuality as anything in Stanley Kubrick‘s more widely discussed, similarly themed “Lolita.” The Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency condemned the film, which nonetheless was nominated for four Academy Awards and five Golden Globes (Kazan won the Best Director prize). A surprisingly progressive piece that only occasionally veers into outright camp, “Baby Doll” still remains highly influential, particularly in the work of filmmaker Craig Brewer, whose underrated “Black Snake Moan” is hugely indebted, tackling young sexuality head on while also weaving in between comedy and drama. [B+]

Wild River” (1960)
Easily one of Kazan’s most overlooked movies, “Wild River” is also one of his best. Characteristically delicate, intimate, frank, and filled with a raw longing, ‘River’ features terrific and poignant performances by Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick. The fourth film of Clift’s post-accident career — his Brando-like trajectory was derailed by a disfiguring car accident that has been referred to as the “longest suicide in Hollywood history” because of the trauma sustained and the substance abuse that followed — it’s also one of his finest. Clift stars as Chuck Glover, an idealistic Authority Agent sent to oversee the completion of a River Dam in the 1930s Tennessee Valley. Glover must evict tenants of an area that’s doomed to be flooded, but they don’t want to leave, and he also encounters opposition caused by the racial politics of hiring black workers. Forced to evict an old woman (Jo Van Fleet) from her home, his job becomes deeply complicated when he falls in love with her daughter (Remick). Passionate, uncomfortable as a raw nerve in spots, and featuring a romance charged with an intense hunger, “Wild River” is melodrama, but a sumptuously performed and photographed one, carefully realized by its sensitively attuned and empathic director. [A-]

Splendor in the Grass” (1961)
An even more frank depiction of sexuality and desire than “Baby Doll,” with far less kitsch and more color (literally), “Splendor in the Grass” is a sort of small town American high school epic (at two hours +, it has the runtime to prove it). Set in Kansas just before the Great Depression, it stars an absolutely radiant Natalie Wood as Deanie, a high school girl dealing with her sexual desire for her boyfriend Bud (Warren Beatty in his first role – he even gets an “introducing” credit). At first the movie plays its small town prudishness for uneasy laughs, like when Deanie’s mother describes the fact that she never had sex until her wedding night and even then it wasn’t pleasant (“Women aren’t supposed to enjoy those things”), but things become more intense and dramatic as the movie rolls along. A whole spectrum of female sexuality is depicted with an utter realism that nearly borders on actively feminist – Bud’s sister (Barbara Loden) is a wild free spirit who is contained to the house because of her loose morals (it’s local gossip that she’s even had an abortion), and Deanie’s repressed desires end up literally driving her mad. When the movie’s second half veers into darker territory, including attempted suicide, rape, and institutionalization, the movie’s effervescent fizz is definitely deflated. Still, its scope is admirable, especially when it pushes historical and social tropes, and it features an all-time great Pat Hingle performance as Ace’s father (we love his speech about sending Ace to Yale – “Trust me, trust me, trust me”). Kazan’s work here is delicate and nuanced, and it still seems kind of shocking that a prominent movie about the evils of abstinence was made in 1961. [B]

America, America” (1963)
Elia Kazan’s body of work can be broken up into two periods, those before and after the 1952 HUAC testimony, because everything irrevocably changed after that. While his greatest success, “On The Waterfront” (12 Oscar nominations, 8 wins including Best Picture and Director) came two years afterwards suggesting his career wasn’t hurt by his actions, the testimony in a way would only build in notoriety over the years. While his career wasn’t too affected at first, by the late 1950s and the 1960s Kazan was no longer at his peak where critics, awards and box-office were concerned. The scathing treatise on celebrity and television, “A Face In The Crowd” is one of his most searing pictures, but it was dismissed as too acidic by the culture at the time. And “Wild River,” as you read, was totally overlooked in every way. “Splendor in the Grass” got decent notices, but you could feel a kind of “fuck it” arrive in 1963 when Kazan released his magnum opus, “America, America” — an almost-three-hour film, and his most personal, telling the story of an immigrant’s life as he emigrates to the land of promise and all the excruciating hardships he must endure to get there. Starring all unknowns, shot in beautiful black and white by the great Haskell Wexler (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Bound For Glory,” “Days of Heaven“) and written, produced and directed by Kazan, “America, America” was, as if it were in any doubt, a massive labor of love. Loosely based on the story of his Greek uncle’s emigration from oppressive Turkey to the United States in the late 1890s, it’s not always successful either. Greek actor Stathis Giallelis, virtually in every frame of the movie, is real, but also awkward. The film is characteristically melodramatic, even sometimes a little overwrought, and its near three-hour running time demonstrates a filmmaker unwilling to make any compromises with his story (we don’t even get close to Stateside until the last fifteen minutes of this overlong film). Originally titled “The Anatolian Smile” — loosely named after the region were Greeks were subjugated by the Turks and often lead an ingratiating life underfoot  — Kazan described it as “the smile that covers resentment.” It was something he loathed in his father, and “America, America” certainly covers this complicated ground, using it as a launching pad to explore the ignominy his family had to endure, but also the individual whose rage, dissatisfaction and anger dictated that he could take it all no longer. The film would be Kazan’s last majorly lauded picture awards-wise. It earned four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Director, but would only win for Gene Callahan‘s incredible Art Direction. [B-]

And that’s it for now, but there’s also “Viva Zapata” with Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, and while it might not even be his 10th best movie, it’s still watchable and compelling. Completists can check out the following: the uneven, testing-of-monogamy picture “The Arrangement,” the socially-charged “Pinky,” “Panic In The Streets” starring the great Richard Widmark, the legal noir “Boomerang,” the iron curtain drama “Man on a Tightrope,” and his final picture “The Last Tycoon” with Robert De Niro, to name most of his movies. Do you have a favorite, or feel like there’s an undersung Kazan gem that needs more love? Sound off in the comments and or just tell us what you think of his oeuvre overall. – Rodrigo Perez and Drew Taylor

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